What is IV Potassium Therapy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Intravenous (IV) potassium therapy is a treatment for severe hypokalemia, which is when a patient has dangerously low potassium levels in the blood. Because intravenous administration of potassium can potentially be dangerous for patients, this treatment is only recommended when it is clearly clinically indicated and there are several safeguards used to reduce the risks to the patient. Typically, IV potassium is provided in a hospital setting, often an intensive care unit, and the patient is monitored carefully for any signs of complications.

A blood test may be performed to check a person's potassium levels.
A blood test may be performed to check a person's potassium levels.

Potassium plays a key role in a number of physiological functions, including communication between the nerves and regulation of the heartbeat. Many people get adequate potassium from their diets. If someone is not eating a balanced diet, is taking a medication that interferes with potassium absorption or retention, or is expressing potassium at a rate faster than it is being consumed, he or she can develop hypokalemia. In the mild stages, the patient may have limited symptoms. As the potassium deficiency continues, the patient can develop kidney problems, muscle paralysis, and heart arrhythmias.

Hanging IV bag of potassium.
Hanging IV bag of potassium.

Low potassium can be diagnosed with a blood test to check the levels of this mineral in the patient. For mild to moderate cases, oral supplementation may be recommended. Once the patient is stabilized, treatment of the underlying causes can begin. In severe cases or cases where a patient cannot tolerate oral medications, IV potassium therapy may be recommended.

Taking laxatives often can cause a magnesium deficiency, which may contribute to the development of a potassium deficiency.
Taking laxatives often can cause a magnesium deficiency, which may contribute to the development of a potassium deficiency.

The risk with IV potassium is that the body cannot process this mineral well in large amounts. If the blood is flooded with a bolus of potassium, there is a risk that it can stop the heart. In fact, potassium chloride is used in executions, illustrating how lethal it can be in larger doses. When IV potassium is administered, it is diluted and set on an infusion pump to regulate how quickly it enters the body. The patient is also monitored for signs of distress like arrhythmias or chest pain.

IV potassium therapy is administered using an infusion pump.
IV potassium therapy is administered using an infusion pump.

Many hospitals have specific policies about IV potassium administration that people must follow when giving this treatment. The policies are designed to reduce the risk of medication errors and keep patients safe. Since the therapy is often administered by a nurse, nurses are expected to be familiar with the policy and if they receive orders that contradict the policy or seem dangerous, nurses can question the orders and request clarification. Acting as advocates for patients, nurses can refuse to comply with orders that will endanger a patient until the orders are rewritten.

Intravenous potassium may be administered to patients suffering from bulimia.
Intravenous potassium may be administered to patients suffering from bulimia.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Lostnfound

I had no idea giving potassium was so chancy. I guess I thought the kind they gave in a hospital was different than what they give for lethal injections! Good Lord. I'd be very wary of having that done, unless it was absolutely necessary.

A guy I knew was having symptoms of a heart attack and it turned out his potassium was very, very low. He had to have it in the hospital. He was a drummer in a band and traveled all the time (and drank a lot), which means he wasn't eating very healthy. He got the therapy and it really helped him, but I suspect it will happen to him again unless he improves his diet and cuts down on the booze. Wishful thinking, right?

Grivusangel

I'm told this therapy is extremely painful, also. A lady from our church had to have it and she said it hurt. I don't know if it's the potassium or the solution they suspend it in, but she said it's a tough way to get your potassium up, and eating bananas was a much easier way to do it.

I've heard that leg cramps are often a first sign of potassium deficiency and a person can eat bananas and drink orange juice to increase the level very quickly. Thank goodness, I've never had low potassium, as far as I know. I've never had any of the symptoms.

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